Film review: The Housemaid

An unbelievable, unerotic thriller may still appeal to viewers' sense of silliness, concludes Duncan Wu

March 24, 2011

Credit: IFC Films

The Housemaid

Directed by Im Sang-soo

Starring Jeon Do-yeon, Lee Jung-jae, Seo Woo and Yoon Yeo-jeong

Released in Germany on 21 April

The Housemaid is like watching the Addams family on speed. And it proves that melodrama is not dead, especially in South Korea. Im Sang-soo's film concerns Eun-yi, an impoverished young woman who works for a wealthy family in their rambling villa. Her duties are wide-ranging: she washes her mistress' underwear by hand; rubs oil into her mistress' pregnant belly; talks to her mistress' unborn twins; paints her mistress' nails; and has sex with the master of the house, Mr Goh. To be accurate, they do it only once, but that's enough to make her pregnant. "Your husband's fucking her!" says Mrs Goh's mother before she attempts to push Eun-yi off a ladder above a stairwell in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. The message is clear: "With a rich husband, cheating is part of the package."

As melodrama, The Housemaid is well nuanced - which is to say, not nuanced at all. Everyone is an exaggerated version of what they claim to be: Eun-yi has a "good heart", as we are told repeatedly by various characters including Nami, the Gohs' creepy young daughter. This is underlined by Eun-yi's unbelievable stupidity; she's the last to realise she's pregnant, and the last to understand what her employers intend to do about it, unsuspecting long after she has returned from hospital after her "accident" with the stepladder. The film alludes to Dostoevsky's The Idiot, but Eun-yi is less Prince Myshkin than Frank Spencer.

Virtually everyone else is the embodiment of evil. Mr Goh tinkles Beethoven like Paderewski, appreciates the nose on a decent burgundy, and listens to Kiri Te Kanawa on his state-of-the-art hi-fi, but compassion isn't his strong suit. "The baby's completely erased?" he asks his mother-in-law, hoping her efforts to induce a miscarriage have succeeded. And although his wife, Hae Ra, is shown reading The Second Sex, her appreciation of Simone de Beauvoir's feminist apologia doesn't enable her to regard his affair as anything but her servant's fault. "He did it with the bitch who washes my underwear?" she asks her mother. "What did he see in that cheap common slut?" Hae Ra's mother is probably the nastiest piece of work in a movie stuffed with villains. Bribing Eun-yi to abort her child, she urges that "you cut it out, like a cyst". Eun-yi is quartered with the family's aged factotum, the embittered, alcoholic Miss Cho, who tells the younger woman that "This job is RUNS: revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless!"

The glory of The Housemaid is the fetishised aesthetic through which it observes the Goh residence, which is no less gothic than the Bates Motel. It has an enormous fireplace, which suggests a sort of inferno. And the camera glides lovingly across its smooth surfaces - not merely the polished stone floors and walls, but the gleaming stomach of the pregnant Hae Ra, her husband's heaving buttocks, and Eun-yi's wet thighs as she bends over in an absurdly skimpy black miniskirt while rinsing out her employer's bath - a process that seems to take far longer than one would expect.

Her attire is part of some kinky subtext: every character under the age of 40, male or female, is dressed only in underwear in at least one scene; Eun-yi's underwear appears in at least four, twice when she is urinating. None of this is particularly erotic; it's just part of the tawdry sheen with which Im's film is overlaid. It put me in mind of Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), which also takes the view that the relationship between master and slave is one in which the master does not invariably have the upper hand.

In recent years, the South Korean film industry has emerged as one of the liveliest in the world, and The Housemaid has the potential to attract sizeable audiences in the West. Its main problem lies in its pacing, which falters about halfway through, after which it fails to recover, thanks partly to some jaw-dropping implausibilities. This is reflected in the denouement, which is outlandish to the point of nonsensicality, despite its fidelity to the film's camp sensibility. The Housemaid had the potential to be better than that; all the same, if your appetite for silliness outweighs that for believability, you're unlikely to leave the cinema disappointed.

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